Does it baffle you how some people—even seemingly kind, caring people—can watch heart-wrenching videos like “Meet Your Meat,” read sobering accounts of dairy farm cruelty, and look at disturbing photos of hens in tiny, crowded cages, yet still eat meat, eggs, and dairy products? Many people seem so indifferent to animal suffering, and even believe that cruel farming practices are justified. Are they horrible people, or are they just not “wired” to feel as much empathy for others?
According to a new study by European researchers, meat-eaters have less empathy—for both animals and people—than vegetarians and vegans do. The researchers recruited 60 volunteers—20 meat-eaters, 21 vegans, and 19 vegetarians—and placed them into an MRI machine while showing them a series of random pictures. The MRI scans revealed that, when observing animal or human suffering, the “empathy-related” areas of the brain are more active among vegetarians and vegans. The researchers even found that there are certain brain areas that only vegans and vegetarians seem to activate when witnessing suffering—animal or human. The vegetarians and vegans also scored significantly higher on an empathy quotient questionnaire than the meat-eaters did.
Now, I’m no neurologist and I don’t know anything about brain chemistry, but every article I’ve read on this subject seems to imply that people who choose to eat a vegan diet do so because they are more capable of making compassionate choices. I’m not bringing this up to make vegans or vegetarians feel self-righteous or superior, but it is something for everyone to keep in mind when you’re accused of—or accusing someone of—caring more about people than animals
We all know someone who insists that animal advocates don’t do anything to help people. Usually, the people who make this claim don’t do anything to help anyone. They might find the results of this study interesting. While it can be difficult to devote the same amount of time and passion to all the worthwhile causes out there—and we all must put our energy towards the ones that touch us the most deeply—that obviously doesn’t preclude us from caring about other issues, especially when making a difference can be as simple as what we choose to eat or where to shop or buy our gas.
As far as animals are concerned, I’m not sure if this study has good or bad implications for them. While it’s hardly conclusive, I can’t help but worry that perhaps there are some people who will never be particularly sensitive to animal suffering, because they’re just more inclined to be self-centered. It sounds like a convenient “excuse,” but maybe it is actually something that’s difficult for them to “overcome.” Could it be like showing a blind person photos of egregious animal abuse and saying, “look, see how horrible this is?”
I just can’t believe that, though. Even if some people aren’t “programmed” to have as much empathy as others are, most everyone is still capable of compassion. (There may be exceptions though—we all knew that Michael Vick was “wrong in the head” to do what he did, and maybe had he undergone a brain scan, it would have proved it—and shown if he is truly capable of changing.)
But, hopefully sooner rather than later, more meat-eaters will realize that farmed animals deserve empathy and kindness. Most vegans have a “suddenly it hit me” moment; I like to think that non-vegans (or pre-vegans) just haven’t had their “aha moment” yet.
If you think of yourself as an empathetic-type—always volunteering at animal shelters, donating money to help earthquake victims, collecting clothing and blankets for the homeless, giving games to “Toys for Tots,” or just crying at sad news stories—but you haven’t yet gone vegan, or even vegetarian, these tips might help you make the transition, and these amazing animal facts might help remind you that animals are fascinating individuals, who have a lot in common with us, and should be treated with respect and empathy.